Twice Bitten
June 15, 2006

Dare to go there
Here I go, talking about my Tout team again... well, in the interest of full disclosure, it's easier to use one of my teams as an example rather than to talk hypothetically.  That said, I made a trade this week.  This may not seem like a big deal for you, but it's a big deal for me because I haven't had much luck with trades in this league.

In 2004, I dealt Johnny Damon at the league trading deadline and then watched him hit 6 homers with 25 RBI, 20 runs and steal six bases on another team in little more than a month.  Orlando Cabrera, the guy I traded for, played pretty well, hitting .300 with a couple homers and a couple steals and it all turned out well in the end.  And it's not like I could have played all eight of the outfielders I had on the roster.  At the time I needed a middle infielder and Damon was my most tradable commodity.  So I can live with that one even though it was lopsided in someone else's favor. 

That year I also traded Kevin Millar and Omar Infante for Joe Crede.  Millar, another Red Sox, had been pretty anemic to that point in the season.  But the week I traded him he hit 5 homers.  He played pretty well down the stretch and Infante wasn't too bad either.  Of course, by then they were playing for someone else.  Crede hit about .235 for me with a few homers.  So another one in the loss column on the trade scoreboard but I needed a guy who could hit better than Scott Spiezio that year and as bad as .235 sounds, it's a heckuva lot better than what Spiezio hit for me.  Or at least it seemed like it at the time.  

Last year I dealt Tim Wakefield just after Doug Mirabelli went down in exchange for Jody Gerut who had just been anointed as a regular in the line-up after Coco Crisp went down.  It turned out that Crisp wasn't going to be out for three months (instead he was out only a couple of weeks) and Gerut fumbled his way not only out of Cleveland but out of two more towns, too.  I take full responsibility for that bad deal though because I had blundered so badly in the draft, chasing after pitching instead of filling out my outfield, leaving me with only three useable outfielders.  That forced me into a situation of finding another bat in the outfield or fall completely out of contention in the offensive categories.  I made the trade in the middle of May and the combination of Wakefield's rebound and Gerut's complete devastation doomed my squad before July was out.

So going in for another trade after a big time 0 for 3 took a bit of resolve.  However, I'm optimistic about this one because a) unlike the previous three, no Red Sox were involved, b) I had other offers on the table so I had a choice and c) this one has clear benefits and I had enough depth to offset any of the potential losses. 

I gave up Jose Contreras in a deal to get speed and saves but it's not because I think Contreras performance to date is somehow a mirage.  I do have some reservations about his struggles against left-handers, especially with the Yanks, Red Sox, Indians and Twins still on his schedule.  But he'll also see a lot of the Tigers predominantly right-handed line-up as well as the Royals so in the end that part will come close to evening out.  And there are some legitimate concerns about his back and his reputed age.  But if you watch him pitch you'd see how good he really is.  He's a joy to watch because he never makes a stupid pitch selection.  He used to make dumb choices quite a bit when he was with the Yanks but I think back then he was more interested in proving he had good stuff.  That resulted in a lot of strikeouts, but it also resulted in a lot of costly mistakes especially when a fastball wasn't the right choice.  Now, he's just interested in getting outs.  Sometimes he'll miss with a pitch and get burned, but he'll never throw a fat pitch that the batter is expecting.  And that's what separates the best pitchers from the merely good ones.

The primary reason I was comfortable parting with him was that I had AJ Burnett and Juan Cruz coming back from the DL and Dustin McGowan beginning to pitch well in Triple-A.  The first two definitely require spots on the active roster and there's a good chance McGowan will too by July when the Casey Janssen/Josh Towers/Ty Taubenheim experiments run their course.  And if Gustavo Chacin misses the rest of the season, McGowan will definitely get his chance.  McGowan has terrific stuff and is just a decent change-up from being a very good pick-up when he returns from the minors.

Here Kitty, Kitty
I know they are getting a lot of attention in the media but I just don't believe the Tigers are for real.  I think they'll finish above .500 but I just don't see how they're gonna win enough games to make the playoffs.  They just have too many guys who are playing way over their heads. 

For example, Marcus Thames is hitting over .300 and is on pace for 41 homers.  Before this year his career totals were 19 homers in 358 at bats with a .226 average and a 33/102 BB/K ratio.  If one buys into the predictability of numbers, there's simply nothing here to substantiate what he's done so far.  At age 29, he's well beyond the age when these sort of jumps in production are a semi-common aspect of the growth process.   Even his minor league average of .279 with 24 homers every 550 at bats suggest Thames is in for a huge second half fade. 

Chris Shelton is a nice hitter, and he may reach 30 homers this year (although I still have my doubts he'll top 25), but he's not going to be an annual 30-homer power.  I covered his upside earlier and it appears he's crashing back to Earth now that he isn't facing the Royals as much.  Take away his first two weeks of the season and he's hit .225 with 3 homers with 13 RBI this season.  He's drawing more walks over the last two months than he did those first two weeks, so his average should remain in the .280-.290 range.  But the big time power is a mirage.

Brandon Inge is on pace for 33 homers.  Last year he hit 16 in 616 at bats.  And at 5'11", 188 lbs, he's not the prototypical bomber.  I'm not saying that guys his size can't be home run hitters but it is noteworthy that his career average is 15 bombs per 550 at bats.

Carlos Guillen is on pace for 21 steals.  He's never stolen more than 17 in any season and hasn't combined for 20 or more in any three seasons since 1996-1998.  His 5 caught stealing in 13 attempts doesn't bode well for a continued green light, either.  I'd be surprised if he stole 5 more bases the rest of the season.

Kenny Rogers is on pace for 22 wins and a 1.14 WHIP.  His 3.25 ERA would be the third best of his career if he maintained it all season and would be his best mark since 1998.  His lowest WHIP was 1.18, also coming in 1998 with Oakland, but other than that he's never posted a season lower than 1.29. 

Justin Verlander IS for real, but he's also very young and just learning how to pitch to major league hitters.  So while there's every reason to be optimistic that he'll be a great pitcher, there's also a reasonable expectation that he'll be inconsistent.  So far, he's managed to avoid truly terrible outings, although his start against the Yankees wasn't good.   He's got a few more tough outings on his schedule so there's a good chance his numbers won't be as nice by season's end.

And finally, Todd Jones is the team's closer.  Last year was the only season since 2000 in which he posted an ERA under 4, which is as many as he's had during that span in which he's posted an ERA over 7.  Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya might be able to handle the role with more competence but moving them up in the pecking order leaves an empty spot in the earlier innings.  For a team that is already a little short on quality starting pitching, that's enough to sink it. 

The Tigers will be coming back to the rest of the AL Central pack, just as fantasy teams that have a lot of Tigers on them will. 

Job's younger brother
Rick Ankiel just can't catch a break.  If there's a sadder story in recent baseball history of a guy with so much potential falling victim to injury, I don't know it.  He was the best pitching prospect I've ever seen, in terms of his stuff and savvy on the mound and in his numbers.  He's the only modern player I would honestly compare to Babe Ruth albeit in reverse (great pitching talent, very good hitting talent) but he just could never stay healthy enough to realize that potential.  In the minors, he has hit just .262 for his career, but has slugged 32 homers in only 455 at bats.  And this is a guy who has never had more than 200 at bats in any season.  Given regular playing time, he could polish his game enough to be a decent regular outfielder.  As a pitcher, his minor league totals were 34-21 with a 2.81 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and 665 Ks in 469 innings, most of which he accrued before his first season-ending surgery at age 22.  In 2000 he made a strong case for Rookie of the Year in his first full season in the majors, going 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA and 194 Ks in 175 innings.  But his post season meltdown and subsequent string of injuries have left the remainder of his career a question mark.  Now he's out again for the year with a knee injury suffered this spring.  Hopefully Fate has a very pleasant surprise in store for him someday because kharmically, he's due to win the lottery.

Nats Gnats
There's a pretty large chorus of pundits that think the Nationals should deal Alfonso Soriano, as well as any other decent player not already bolted to the floor.  Well, true to my contrarian nature, I have another idea: keep the talent. 

Soriano is expensive to be sure and definitely moreso after the season he's having.  And he's not particularly adept as a left fielder.  However, he's only 30 and, as hard as it is for me to swallow a big piece of humble pie, one of the most physically gifted players in the majors.  I was never a big fan of his when he was a prospect with the Yankees.  In fact, I was a defender of D'Angelo Jimenez as the better of the two because he had much better plate discipline.  Boy, was I ever wrong.  Soriano is a rare talent and a special kind of player that has to be kept.  So what if he costs $10-12 million.  He's worth every penny because either with his bat or his legs he can change any game.  He's intelligent and has shown a decent ability to adapt.  I submit that the Nats can't afford to let him go because they won't get fair trade value in return.  Teams simply don't give up their top prospects any more... well, every team except the Mets.  So the best the Nats could probably get in return are a couple "B" grade prospects.  Getting a future utilityman or a #4 starter for a talent like Soriano's is simply unacceptable. 

I don't have a problem with the Nats trading away players for the future, but this team isn't that far away from winning the division regularly and Soriano could be a nice piece of that puzzle.  And here's the second part of that puzzle: if they trade him, who will they get to replace him in left?  Marlon Byrd?  Ryan Church?  Nice talents, both, but when given the chance to play regularly, even without competition for their position, both guys have twice fallen short of establishing themselves as everyday players.  There's no one in the pipeline that Soriano is blocking and any comparable talent is going to cost as much or more.  I think the Nationals have to try to sign him to a long term deal and hope they can find some takers for the spare parts like Daryl Ward, Damian Jackson, Robert Fick, Matt LeCroy and Marlon Anderson.  They won't get much in return, but it'd be better than trading a guy they can't replace.

Given that they've been without the ace of their staff and top set-up man for most of this year, and have been playing a retread at short and their right-fielder has been out for a third of their games, they've actually fared pretty well.  They won't win the division this year, but next year they could be really good.  They have excellent men at the corners, an excellent closing troika, one of the best defensive catchers in the majors, and three starters - John Patterson, Ramon Ortiz and Livan Hernandez plus one more who could be (Jon Rauch) - who are talented enough when healthy to give the team 900 quality innings.  

By all means trade away the bench players to contenders for low minor league prospects and future utilitymen.  But the Nats need to keep the big pieces.  This team is on the verge.

Speaking of trading
I thought I had done this exercise before but I couldn't find the column.  It's the time of the season when teams are looking to make trades, so I thought it'd be a good time to play GM.  So suppose you are a team that has a decent veteran who would attract some interest from a contending team and you are looking at potential pitching prospects.  Unfortunately, you have bought into the idea that a player's stats tell you much of what you need to know so you are going to base your trade decisions on what each player has done in the minors.  With that, here are your candidates:

Pitcher A is a 23-year old in Triple-A who went 12-10 with a 3.63 ERA in 166 innings with 149 hits allowed, 32 walks and 126 strikeouts.  The year before at age 22 in Double-A he went 12-4 with a 1.88 ERA in 158 innings with 118 hits allowed, 43 walks and 143 strikeouts. 

Pitcher B is a 24-year old in Triple-A who went 8-7 with a 3.26 ERA in 113 innings with 85 hits allowed, 72 walks and 111 strikeouts.  The year before this same guy as a 23-year old in Double-A went 11-8 with a 3.73 ERA in 140 innings with 100 hits allowed, 128 walks and 163 strikeouts

Which one do you take?  Pitcher A is clearly the better pitcher, right?  He strikes batters out, has terrific control and doesn't give up many hits.  This guy is a Mark Prior-type talent, right?
And Pitcher B, while he can strike batters out at a very good clip, clearly has no idea where the ball is going and is just as likely to walk the bases loaded and perhaps walk a few runs in as he is to strike out the side.  Perhaps even more decisive, Pitcher A is a year younger yet pitching at the same level.  It's gotta be Pitcher A. 

It is if you are a Bobby Jones fan.  Because that's who Pitcher A is.   And Pitcher B, the guy who was too wild?  That would be Randy Johnson.

I'll throw another one out.  Pitcher C is a 20-year old who, split between Double-A and Triple-A struck out 100 batters and walked 45 in 191 innings.  He has a poor strikeout rate so this guy must be a future long-man, right?  Well, I wouldn't call Greg Maddux a future long man, but maybe he'll stick around long enough to entertain that role.  But I kinda doubt it.

My point is that while minor league numbers can be very exciting, there are so many examples of them not telling the whole story that to rely on them exclusively is to invite disappointment.  Taking it a step further in fantasy baseball, sometimes ignoring the numbers can work in your favor.

For example, Scott Kazmir's spring training was pretty ugly.  He posted a 9.24 ERA with 22 hits and 12 walks allowed in 12.2 innings pitched.  After his first two starts of the regular season, his ERA stood at 5.68 and his WHIP was 1.895.  If you only looked at those numbers you would have missed out, because since then he's been one of the ten best fantasy starters in baseball.  And if you waited until he started pitching well, you waited too long because with that first 10-strikeout, 1-walk game his value went through the roof. 

The point is that you have to watch these guys pitch to know how good they can be.  Because once they put it together and their talent starts showing up in the numbers, it's too late to trade for them.  And the adjustment to make that leap forward in performance can be as simple as a slight mechanical change in his delivery.  So instead of Daniel Cabrera walking five or six guys a game, those outside pitches inch just barely onto the black for strikes and suddenly he becomes a dominating force.  Guys like Cabrera, Dustin McGowan, Kip Wells, AJ Burnett, Erik Bedard, Ian Snell and Juan Cruz have the kind of potential to take that step up.   So if someone in your league is getting impatient with these guys, now's the time to make your offer.